Ugly Babies

We’ve all heard the old saying, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. Never is that statement more true than when speaking of a new mother’s affection for her infant. A mother is able to overlook even the most glaring imperfections while cherishing her offspring, even when others notice immediately. By the same token, many of us allow the mother’s enthusiasm to do the same for us, softening our objections and allowing us to say, “Oh, but look at those cute eyes/mouth/toes.” This week in my English classes, we’ll be doing a writing exercise that I call Ugly Babies

A face only a mother could love? (
A face only a mother could love? (

The premise of the Ugly Babies writing exercise is that an author’s creation, be it fiction or nonfiction, is still a creation–it’s your baby, and that often makes it difficult for you to see just how ugly it really is. Of course, there’s not just one kind of “ugly baby”–so what makes writing “ugly”?


The obvious imperfections are almost always grammar-related–think of them along the lines of physical imperfections. You forgot to capitalize your own name (or worse, you misspelled it–which happens more often than you’d think). You loaded a Gatling gun with commas and peppered your document with it at random. Or maybe you fell victim to the annoying error of Random Capitalization within your Document, followed By The Need To Use Excessive Exclamation Points!!!!

The problem with “ugly babies” that have grammar issues is frustrating–but it’s a simple one to solve. As you learn proper grammar, your writing is slowly freed from these problems hampering its beauty.


It doesn't matter if you break the rules intentionally or not. (
It doesn’t matter if you break the rules intentionally or not. (

The bigger problem of literary “ugly babies”, at least from my perspective, is rule-breaking…especially those of you that commit the Big P (plagiarism). These babies might not be physically ugly, but their behavior still makes them downright revolting.

Over the last few weeks, we’ve been working on writing feature articles. A feature article has a set of defined rules that an author must follow. If you fail to do so, it doesn’t matter if your grammar is flawless–that piece of writing is still one ugly baby.

But how does one recognize the ugliness? As I scanned through the drafts my students turned in, I could see that many of them felt they did an excellent job. At the bottom of each paragraph, quite faithfully, there was a citation in parenthesis, and then there was a list of websites at the bottom of the page. The articles answered the basic investigative questions (who, what, when, where, why, and how).

I maintain that they are ugly babies, though.

My students–the young and proud mothers in this metaphor–don’t see what’s missing. They approached the assignment like a checklist. Three facts about who? Check. Three facts about what? Check. Three websites listed at the bottom of the page? Check. Ten fingers, ten toes, two eyes, two ears and a nose. Check, check, triple check. They didn’t realize that merely checking something off a list isn’t the same as executing it fully.

The Ugly Baby Activity

In class on Monday, I’ll put the students in small groups and give them copies of a sample article I wrote–an Ugly Baby. It’s generally grammatically correct, but full of all those rule-breaking flaws young writers are prone to insert (lack of transitions, incorrect citations, failure to include commentary). I’ll ask the students to point out what’s wrong with the article, and we’ll discuss what they see (or don’t).

Then, I’ll pass out a second version of the same article. It’s slightly expanded–about a paragraph longer, with an attempt at correcting the flaws that doesn’t quite hit the mark. We’ll compare the two pieces and discuss why one is preferable to the other.

Finally, I’ll pass out a third version of the article where the flaws are corrected–a version that would score an A using the rubric.

After we discuss all three versions, students will be asked to look back at their own writing to see if they can identify the flaws we spoke about. This is why they are grouped for the activity–to give them a sounding board.

Why I Like This Activity

Getting back an inked-up rough draft hurts. I still remember the first term paper I wrote at UK. I swear my professor cracked open her ink pen and finger-painted all over it. The thing gained five pounds. I could definitely tell she didn’t like what I’d done–but I didn’t understand why. All I knew is that she said my baby was ugly–and I didn’t like her anymore.

I dusted off my pride and went to the university writing center, where someone was kind enough to point out what my professor’s notations and complaints meant. They taught me how to fix the problems, and the next time I turned in an essay, I was able to avoid some of the ugliness.

What wasn’t as easy to get over was my feeling about the professor’s attitude toward my writing. If I’d known what she wanted to begin with, I would have tried harder to do it in the first place.

The purpose of this activity is to show students how to take their first draft and improve it to the point that they have a rough draft ready to turn in for grading–to show them exactly what I expect and how to take the draft to that point. It eliminates some of the “you called my baby ugly” hurt and gives students a realistic goal for their writing.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *